The Lead Story - Preventing Lead Poisoning

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Lead poisoning is a common type of poisoning but one that is preventable. While it can affect anyone at any age, growing children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning causes permanent damage to the developing brain and nervous system and can lead to brain damage, learning problems, and hyperactivity. Lead poisoning can also cause hearing loss, headaches, and growth retardation. Extremely high levels of lead can be fatal.

Lead has no value or function in the human body, and all exposure should be avoided. However, 6% of American children 1-2 years of age have toxic levels of lead in their bloodstream, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Lead is a naturally-occurring chemical in the earth's crust. The use of fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing have spread lead throughout the environment into the water and soil. Lead-containing paint and pipes are still found in many older homes. Lead was widely used in paint until 1978. The renovation of houses built before 1978 can therefore release dangerous levels of lead dust, and improper removal of lead-containing paint can pose a significant risk of poisoning.

Lead is also found in old batteries, caulking, solder (a metal alloy used to join less fusible metals or wires), ammunition, and some pewter, pottery, and toys. In 2004, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of 150 million pieces of metal toy jewelry sold in vending machines that were found to contain lead after a child swallowed a piece of the jewelry and developed lead poisoning.

Although lead poisoning leads to irreversible damage to the nervous system, treatment of affected children can help prevent further brain damage. The source of lead exposure should be identified and the child removed from it. Drugs called chelators that combine with lead (and other heavy metals) are given to remove lead from the body.

Lead poisoning can be prevented. One key way is to ensure that homes, schools, and other buildings do not contain lead paint or pipes. Lead levels can be measured in buildings and in drinking water. A blood test is available to test for dangerous levels of lead in the body.

The CDC recommends that all children be screened for lead exposure even if they do not show any symptoms of lead poisoning. Your pediatrician, family doctor or community health center can administer the blood test at your request.

Last Editorial Review: 4/21/2005